Photo by Bryan Pocius

Irish Bias

The Irish butter — the incomparable Kerry Gold butter — is positively laconic as it slides off the knife into the rice pot, the saucepan I’ve reserved for rice cooking for twenty years plus. Thirty years? Maybe. The orange-enameled saucepan with the wooden handle and the solid, comforting weight. The only pot that has never burnt my rice, but of course not.

The pot with the matching lid that has the knob off, lost, removed, forgotten. The pot lid has never had its knob, yet, it’s okay, sort of. It’s annoying truth be told but the little pot is so valuable it’s okay. You just have to remember to use a potholder that’s thick enough not to burn you, but not so thick you won’t be able to grip the little aluminum or steel bit that stands up where the knob should be, the bit that used to hug the handy black knob to the pot.

But where were we? Ah, yes. The Irish butter. I have a weird and lovely relationship with Kerry Gold Irish butter. To be honest, I think I’ve transferred the love I have for my mother to this butter. Kid you not. The thing is, since my mother died in 1995, I have not missed her once. There’s not much to miss, to be honest.

I’m sorry, but it’s the absolute truth. My mother for most of my life was drunk, drunk as can be. Naked as the day is long is what we say about naked. What do we say about drunk? Drunk as… drunk as… I know not. Just, drunk. Super drunk. Very much so. Day in and day out. Obnoxiously so. It’s hard to miss that.

Yet, my mother was… well, she was special. Although I feel she didn’t allow me to know or understand much about what made her special and unique, what her gifts were, what legacy I might have inherited that I can stand by and be proud of, there were occasional glimpses.

One of them was her pride in being Irish. And that’s something I’ve carried on even though I understand it little. I know little of what it means to be Irish-American, yet I treasure the shards and leavings I do have. I understand my grandpa James Woods had a heavy brogue — a brogue I never heard myself because, well, to me he was just my grandpa, really the only one I’d ever know.

I didn’t notice his “accent.” He had no accent for me. He was just grandpa. He had exceptionally kind eyes framed by heavy plastic tortoiseshell lenses. He smoked a pipe that smelled really good. He put his teeth in a glass at night. He made us malt-o-meal and told us skyscrapers were the planes in the sky that left white marks.

He fitted the four of us in a tiny plastic blow-up tub in his back yard and then carried endless pots of hot water from his stove top to us because he couldn’t bear the thought of us shivering. He planted Swiss Chard beneath the rose bushes and bought his pill-popping wife a blue-flowered covered swing for the back of the garden.

Grandpa, who died of lung cancer when I was ten, shocking me to my bones. Who cut open the bedding for my new hamster one Christmas, taking me to the kitchen to do so, paying attention to me when no one else would, who cut himself to the artery that night, after taking a good old dull grey butcher knife from my mother his daughter’s kitchen drawer and while trying to slice the plastic of the hamster bedding instead slashed his own finger, the artery exposed and pulsating in the kitchen.

I ran for help. He was hospitalized. Next thing we knew he had cancer, and then he was sick. And then he died. I always felt responsible. How could I not have? And I loved him. Probably best of all the adults in my life. My grandpa, gentle and quiet, who took my hand and walked me to the park, to the ice cream truck, the only one who did.

Irish. Irish butter — the richest, realist butter there is. Tawny gold, rich, thick, integrated, super yummy, super goodness. No one can resist it. I saw it last night at the block party, people drawn to that butter like moth to a flame, people that don’t even know butter is a thing, that butter can be a thing.

And I was proud.

Irish. The Irish penchant for the underdog. Yes, my mother was required as society editor to relay in sparkling prose the antics of the very rich WASPs she covered for the San Francisco Examiner because that was the only job available to female journalists in the early sixties. Yes. True. Look it up.

Yet, she was a flaming liberal and union supporter who refused to cross a picket line, ever. Who cried every couple of weeks of my childhood for Kennedy. Of course. Goes without saying.

Descendent of an IRA fighter, legendary in the family. My own beloved grandfather also was forced to flee Ireland (County Kerry) because he’d gotten involved in some illicit affair involving the IRA and the British and had to hide in a haystack and then leave to protect his life. My mother was proud of this fact. And proud of the other relations who occupied similar positions, affiliated with the IRA in one way or another…

We were a family that didn’t buy British tea, let’s put it that way.

And when a cute Brit named Norman asked me out many years later in Hanoi, Vietnam (don’t ask — another story), and I said yes (because he was cute, smart, funny, and successful), in the final reckoning I couldn’t stomach him, couldn’t stomach the date, couldn’t stomach a kiss, couldn’t do it, any of it, due to my allegiance with my Irish self.

So, Kerry Gold butter. Van Morrison, Van the man… It’s an Irish thing. As is the love of fiddle, the love of music, this weird Catholic thing — it’s bad, undeniably, but it’s the theatricality that goes along with it, the pull of mysticism, that I like. The love of justice, freedom, beauty, the lyric, the poem, the pint.

The peat, the green, the land.

It’s an Irish thing. Buy some Kerry Gold butter. You might see what I mean. I know it sounds silly, but seriously.